YSU BASEBALL PREVIEW Pitching should be Penguins' strong suit
The starting rotation returns to defend the 2004 Horizon League title.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Despite entering the 2004 Horizon League tournament as the No. 7 seed, coach Mike Florak and the Youngstown State baseball team never lost faith. The Penguins vowed to win the conference championship.
YSU rallied from a 3-0 ninth-inning deficit in the tournament's opening round and never trailed the rest of the way, sweeping its way to the program's first conference championship and NCAA Division I tournament berth.
"I think it validated all the things we're trying to do," Florak said. "In the past we've put some guys into pro ball, our guys have done well academically and we've had some solid regular season performances, but I think that was just the exclamation point on the things that we've done in the first three years."
Defending the title
Five starting players and the entire rotation return for the Penguins to help defend their title.
The season begins Saturday with a doubleheader against Dayton in Jefferson City, Tenn.
The Penguins will enter the season with some new faces on the infield.
Lincoln Trail Community College transfer Jason Coffey will play first base, but will be challenged by junior Brian Boone and redshirt freshman Mike Turjanica.
"We're going to see who swings the bat the best in the beginning and go from there," Florak said.
Banks at second
Junior Justin Banks started all but one game at second base last season. Banks will return to the starting role for the third season. Banks was named the Horizon League tournament MVP by going 8-for-16 with seven RBIs in four games.
Redshirt freshman Josh Page could also play second, short and third.
"I feel real good about second base with Justin coming back," Florak said. "Josh has gotten a lot better and he's such a smart, hard-nosed guy. He's a young guy and he's getting better all the time."
Schultz back at third
Junior Charles Schultz will return to third base after being moved to shortstop for the final 18 games last season. Schultz, who was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and to the Horizon League All-Newcomer Team, hit .296 with 32 runs scored.
Tommy Nutt, another transfer from Lincoln Trail, is slated to start at short. Last season for LTCC, Nutt hit .380 and stole 17 bases.
Junior Brandon Caipen will be the starting catcher. He hit .299 last season.
"Brandon got a lot better in the off-season. His psychological and emotional maturity is catching up to his physical," Florak said. "He's got a lot of tools and it's time for him to make the jump and become a standout college player."
The outfield will also have a different look with four-year starter Kendall Schlabach gone, but senior Jim Phillips returns with sophomore Brent Parks and sophomore transfer Brian Dill.
Phillips hit .287 with three homers, while Parks hit .157 in 41 games. Dill hit .194 in 25 games for Cincinnati.
Also, junior J.D. Hannan will return after a year off and sophomore Jeff Solt played in 37 games last season.
Pitching should be YSU's strongest spot.
Junior left-hander Justin Thomas, who was second-team All-Horizon League last season, was 7-3 with a 5.11 ERA and 82 strikeouts while setting school records in innings pitched (931/3) and starts (14).
Also, juniors Eric Shaffer and Kevin Libeg return. The left-handed Shaffer went 2-5 with a 5.83 ERA in nine starts while Libeg, a righty, went 5-3 in nine starts and seven relief appearances.
Senior left-hander Chris Dennis finished 1-7 in 10 starts last season, but with a team-best 3.61 ERA.
Anchoring the bullpen will be sophomore right-hander Andy Svitak, who emerged as the team's closer late in the season. He finished with four saves, a 4-3 record and 4.69 ERA in 401/3 innings.
Freshmen Lucas Engle, Ryan Sellman and Joe Johnson should see innings out of the bullpen.